Freedom at Work: Elect Your Boss!

Posted by jlubans on October 29, 2013  •  Leave comment (2)

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Your organization is seeking a new leader. This search will be different – instead of the staff’s usual limited input to the decision, this time the staff elects leader. The candidate with the most votes gets to be the boss. Impossible?
That’s what happened at DreamHost, a 172-person, Los Angeles-based dot com.
DreamHost’s executive team (ET) - not exactly a radical setup with its 7 Vice Presidents including a VP of Human Resources - identified eight viable candidates. Then the ET narrowed the referendum to three. The three were invited to meet the staff; each on a separate day. All three agreed to the ballot process and to a company-wide meeting with staff, followed by informal meetings and opportunities to ask questions one-on-one.
Election Day was a two horse race; the third candidate opted out on the day of his interview. Simon Anderson was elected (online and anonymous) by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent. On his first meeting with the staff, he yukked it up: "All those of you who didn’t vote for me, stand up. You’re fired."
The election appears to have prompted Anderson’s thinking along democratic lines, more so than perhaps he would have done if he had been the usual appointee from on high.
While he says he was a collaborative kind of guy to start with – an Australian, so somewhat different from the stereotypical competitive MBA – he has shared detailed financial information and engaged employees in discussions of critical issues, such as how the company could continue to offer free health insurance. DreamHost recently formed a “committee of managers and rank-and-file employees to create a kind of constitution that will guide how DreamHost makes decisions.” And, Anderson practices the staff-inspired concept of “shameless honesty.” He elaborates:
“You can be sitting in a meeting and you can say, ‘I’m going to be shamelessly honest here.’ Boom. Now there’s respect and it’s not rude honesty. It just gives us permission to have those hard conversations ….”
Did the DreamHost staff make the right choice? Looks like it to me – they’re still in business and growing.

Vermont town meetings have long held public elections of town
leaders, sometimes by hand vote or often by silent ballot. I visited the Bradford, Vermont’s annual town meeting and observed firsthand the citizen decision-making that’s been going on in New England since about 1620.
It is hard to imagine a more open, democratic process. The slate of candidates for selectman and other permanent town jobs goes up on the board, each candidate speaks briefly (this is taciturn Vermont!) about why she wants the job. When all have spoken, it’s time to vote.

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Caption: The “slate” for one position, March 6, 2012, Bradford, Vt.

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Caption: Neighbors and citizens lining up to vote, Bradford, Vt.

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Caption: Checking in to vote, Bradford, Vt.

Can electing the boss apply elsewhere? It certainly would increase, for the better, the systolic blood pressure of my peers in large academic libraries. Instead of the search committee sending a slate of three or more names to the President, let the staff vote. The same for department heads or team leaders.
Is electing the boss an outlandish concept? Why? Well, top administrators have an unparalleled expertise, broad knowledge and proven ability to pick the right person, don’t they? Those at a lower level have too little information and understanding to make this sort of choice. If you viscerally believe this, the staff’s electing the boss is not going to work. But, If you have doubts about the effectiveness of the bureaucratic and hierarchical status quo, elect your boss!

NOTE: The Perfect Swarm : the Science of Complexity in Everyday Life by Len Fisher (New York : Basic Books, 2009) cites, in an extensive note, my “Invisible Leader” paper on p. 189. This paper, revised extensively, appears in Leading from the Middle as chapter 6, “The Invisible Leader: Lessons for Leaders from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.”

If your library does not have my book, borrow it from one that does: Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Grinnell College.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE BEAR AND THE BEES”*

Posted by jlubans on October 25, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Exeunt bear pursued by bees.
“A Bear roaming the woods in search of berries happened on a fallen tree in which a swarm of Bees had stored their honey. The Bear began to nose around the log very carefully to find out if the Bees were at home. Just then one of the swarm came home from the clover field with a load of sweets. Guessing what the Bear was after, the Bee flew at him, stung him sharply and then disappeared into the hollow log.
The Bear lost his temper in an instant, and sprang upon the log tooth and claw, to destroy the nest. But this only brought out the whole swarm. The poor Bear had to take to his heels, and he was able to save himself only by diving into a pool of water.

It is wiser to bear a single injury in silence than to provoke a thousand by flying into a rage.”

The epimythium is true – most of the time. Since the bear was nosing around to see if the bees were home, it might have been better for the bee to hold off on stinging the bear in hopes it would leave. Once stung, the bear damaged the nest. Yes, the bees got the best of the bear, but at a price. And, like the Terminator, he’ll be back.
So, let’s break this cycle; move the nest far up into a tree hollow. If the bear wants honey, he’ll have to climb for it.
At work, If we are in a predictable negative cycle, stop and ask why. Then move to change the circumstances. If it’s due to a lack of support for some service, get the necessary support. Or, drop the service.

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: McGill University Library.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Letting Go: The Taoist Canoe

Posted by jlubans on October 22, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A calm moment on the Rio Grande, 2011.
I often reflect on what the Tao has to say about leadership and working*.
One of the strangest paradoxes is the Taoist’s use of “wei wu wei” (“doing not-doing.“) When my students discuss this puzzle, they often interpret it as being passive, “going with the flow”, if you will. Letting things happen, like the tide washing over a rock.
Actually, the concept is much closer to what happens in a different kind of flow, the psychological and physical states of “flow”.
“Doing not doing” is on display when a musician (or an athlete) enters a “state of body awareness in which the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action.” The greater the musician, the more effortless his music. The better the athlete, the easier appearing her performance.
This state of flow, of non-action, also happens at work when someone is encouraged and given the resources to engage work at the highest level. The worker’s mastery of the task appears effortless; yet it is the highest level of working, of acting.
Not-doing is not blowing off a job. It is doing a difficult job so well that it looks easy.
What does this have to do with leadership? A lot. A worker can only engage a job at the flow level through the necessary training and resources to do the job. Withhold one or the other, frustrate the worker. A good leader enables others to work without effort.

I am preparing to canoe on the Rio Grande in Texas’ Big Bend National Park. My paddling technique needs work, a lot of it!. The best paddlers paddle smoothly, in brief strokes. There’s no “digging” into the water, no wasted energy. The canoe tracks straight in flat water or zigzags in white water dodging rocks. The best paddlers can slip out of raging water into the safety of an eddy, spinning the canoe 180 degrees.
When I canoe, the boat moves to the right, every third stroke is a correction. The correction may send the boat too far left. Another correction. Not a pretty picture, but I keep trying. I have learned a new non-action stroke: The “stationary draw”. When I’ve survived a rapid, I look for an eddy in which to park. As I angle toward the eddy line, and the canoe crosses it, I put my paddle into the water and let it stand; the water rushing behind the boat and my stationary paddle turn the canoe, so that I am no longer going downstream; rather, after a few forward strokes, I am now facing upstream in calm water. Non-action in action. Whew!
I slide the paddle into the water; I yield to the water. Bossing not bossing; unbossing! When I lead, I let go, I yield to the staff.
Like the Tao has it: “…. leading and not trying to control”.

*Source: Tao Te Ching. A New English Version, with Foreword and Notes, by Stephen Mitchell. NY: HarperPerennial, 1992.

If your library does not have a copy, Leading from the Middle, can be ordered from Amazon.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable: Lubans’ The Raindrop and the Snowflake.

Posted by jlubans on October 18, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Zeus, the weather-maker, was listening with a growing impatience to an extended oration by the Snowflake. The Snowflake wanted a divine status in the weather pantheon; after all it was he, the Snowflake, who, in winter, transformed the brown earth and the naked trees into wondrous shapes and undulating landscapes. Why, he even capped Mount Olympus’ awesome majesty with a white diamond crown! And, lest there be any doubt as to his superiority the Snowflake sniffed: “I cannot be compared to the Raindrop; that shapeless blob that falls to the earth and makes mud. Worse, the raindrop pelts down on my glistening snow and turns it into slush.”
“Besides”, the Snowflake unabashedly concluded, “I am unique; there’s not another like me!”
Zeus rolled his eyes and turned to the Raindrop. “What do you have to say?” he growled. The Raindrop replied, “I am the rain, I beseech no special rank. I ‘falleth alike upon the just and the unjust.’ I ask only to be left in peace.”
Zeus pondered. Then, he turned back to the Snowflake, “Yes, you are indeed unique. Unique as a grain of sand! While you blanket the naked earth, the Raindrop brings warm moisture and turns the earth green and fills the rivers and lakes. You, however, do mischief by covering the icy ground so Mankind slips and falls.” After letting that sink in, Zeus roared, “That’s my job, not yours, damn you!” With a couple blue lightning bolts he turned the Snowflake into what would become known as a “wintry mix” that was cursed by all. Neither snow nor rain but mostly an annoyance in its persistence to be something it was not.

And so it can be in the workplace when we employ prideful Specialists who sometimes lord it over the lowly “Generalist” and even our clients. Too often, when we require extra qualifications we exclude the outgoing and resourceful Generalist who will get the job done and win over clients. When credentials trump people skills – unstated, of course - we may be recruiting a wintry mix. If a new position involves collaborating with others - inside and outside the agency - then attitude (enthusiasm, energy, warmth, and natural intelligence) far outweighs a Specialist’s unique expertise. Like someone – not Zeus - said, “Hire attitude, Train for skills.”

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Michigan, Hatcher Graduate Library

Your library - if for some peculiar reason it does not already have the book, - can get a copy here.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Bossless on National Boss Day

Posted by jlubans on October 15, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: A clown Chihuahua, dressed up for National Boss Day.
Yet another greeting card holiday looms; since 1958, October 16 has been set aside as Boss Day and increasingly the supervised class (us) is being gently prodded to do something. At least send a card!
One card defines the boss in ethereal terms as “Someone who knows the magic of teamwork. Someone who believes in dreaming as well as doing. Someone who is an everyday hero.”
Another card offers up self-serving praise:
“On Boss's Day, we’d like to pay you a compliment, Mr. Gilroy: You’ve sure got a great bunch of people 
working for you!”

Boss’s Day juxtapositions neatly with a recent report on “Bossless Offices”.

Caption: Group effort at Menlo Innovations: People and dogs share computers and space, productively.
Lest anyone think I have a grudge against bosses, I don’t. I supervised hundreds of staff over my career, so I have some idea about the complexities of boss-dom. Certainly, not all bosses are good; some are toxic. My favorite bosses are more leaderly, if you will. They empower (really) subordinates. They are generous in spirit, they encourage, and they possess integrity and defend staff through thick and thin. What makes my leader particularly different from other good bosses is that one of her main responsibilities is creating, training, promoting and sustaining independent leaders and self-managing teams.

But, this essay is less about the qualities of the “unboss”* and more about seeking an answer to what happens when an organization decides to be “bossless”? The NPR story offers a largely positive take on the Menlo organization but does include a cautionary perspective from a former employee of the Valve Corp. Valve is a video game developer; its bosslessness is illustrated by this quote on the front cover of their “New Employee” handbook: “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”
The former employee says her time at Valve "felt a lot like high school." … "What I learned from Valve is that I don't think it (self-management) works,” "I think that if you give complete latitude with no checks and balances, it's just human nature [employees] are gonna try to minimize the work they have to do and maximize the control they have."

These words remind me of comments from a survey of a student orchestra coached by musicians from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Orpheus, as readers of Leading from the Middle know, plays without a conductor and is well regarded musically and self-sustaining financially. And they truly are bossless when up on stage at Carnegie Hall. So, what could be better than Orpheus training a motivated student orchestra about going conductorless? It’s not that simple. Here are a couple insightful quotes from the student assessment:

“I really liked to work with (coach X and coach Y). They were precise, maybe more guiding than the others... We worked faster with them, but it was closer to the kind of rehearsals we would have had with a conductor.”

“Actually, most of the coaches told us what to do musically rather than helped up discover this ourselves. We need more suggestions on how to work as a group without a conductor and less about musical opinions and suggestions... I'm sure we could come up with this ourselves if we knew how to better work together….” (Emphasis added)

So, here’s a question for the aspiring unboss: Is it time to give up the bureaucracy? If your answer is yes, what will it take to introduce, cultivate and sustain the sort of teamwork apparent at Menlo and at Orpheus?
Is success a matter of:
Size? (Around 50 people work at Menlo, 40 at Orpheus).
Age? (Menlo is 10 years old, Orpheus late 30s)
Leadership vision and support? (Menlo’s founder Rich Sheridan is out on the floor along with everyone else – no corner office. Another unboss is Ricardo Semler at SEMCO. As owner and philosopher/leader he provides guidance and direction for the staff.
And, at Orpheus about half of the musicians take turns being concert master/leader – each models the Orpheus way of collaborating.)
Freestanding? (Not being part of a larger enterprise gives one the freedom to experiment without having to answer to those beholden to the hierarchy and lovin’ it.)
Self-selection? (Like-minded musicians and programmers may be attracted to the self-managing model. If you want micromanagement, you apply elsewhere.)
Singularity of purpose? (The organizational mission is narrow and everyone understands and supports its mission.)
Type of business? (Musicians – soloists and ensemblists - must collaborate, even when bossed by a conductor; software developers often collaborate – it seems a natural way of work to that field. That said, one of the most maverick staff in my career was a brilliant systems analyst.)

Probably several of these structural and cultural factors are relevant to creating a flat “bossless” organization. These same factors help explain the complexity of changing a bossed organization into an unbossed one. However desirable and superior the latter – and I believe it is - I suspect a National UnBoss Day is a few years off.

*NOTE: I used the term “unboss” in an essay in 2006.
While writing this essay I discovered that two researchers in Denmark published a book, Unboss, in 2012. I have yet to see a print copy.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE OLD DOG AND HIS MASTER”*

Posted by jlubans on October 11, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: “The Old Hound” taken to task. By Francis Barlow in his 
Aesop's Fables…. 
London: 1666.
“There was a dog who had been swift and strong when attacking all kinds of wild beasts, never failing to do what his master wanted, but now he found himself beginning to grow feeble under the burden of old age. On one occasion he was sent forward to fight with a bristling boar. The dog seized the boar by the ear, but the weak grip of his decaying teeth allowed the quarry to get away. The hunter was angry and scolded the dog. The stalwart old hound said to the man in reply, 'I did not fail you in spirit, only in strength. Praise me for what I once was, even if you must condemn me for what I am now!’....”

And, so it can be in the workplace for the plateued manager, especially for someone who has been bold and innovative and a help in transforming an organization – in other words, a worker who has contributed a great deal to the organization’s well being.
A bad boss might suffer, like the hunter in the picture, from the “recency error”. That’s the tendency for minor recent events – like the manager’s doldrums - to have more influence on one’s perspective than the many positive events in a long career. It may well be time to have that “difficult conversation” with the manager. By difficult, I don’t mean, “Sorry, old timer, we don’t need you anymore. You’re gone!” That’s the cowardly way out for a petty boss.
By difficult conversation I mean spending a few hours listening and talking in private about options and ambitions. What is the formerly innovative manager seeking? What’s causing the doldrums? What’s hindering her performance? How might her skills be put to good use in other ways? What can the organization offer with a dignity commensurate with the worker’s commitment to the organization?

The angry hunter should lay down his stick and think about the dog’s many good qualities. Perhaps it is time for the hunting dog to become an unchained watchdog, training, by example, the new pups.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Higher Colleges of Technology – UAE
If your library does not have a copy, recommend it today. Click here.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Even More Scoundrels, Knaves and Varlets. *

Posted by jlubans on October 08, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

The Case of the Presumptuous Profs.
A University of Colorado business school professor came to my attention for failing to return a large number of bound business and economics journals, now long overdue.
I asked the business school dean to intervene and the periodicals were returned, but they did not look right – they bulged - and the bindings were sprung. It turned out that the professor and a faculty colleague had glued in their own page headers (imagine peel-off address labels) on every page of several dozen articles – hundreds of pages - and they had, with White-Out, eradicated the original page numbers and other header information.
These articles were then photographed and put into a course pack/anthology for sale to their students and others. Apart from mutilating library materials – the university’s shared resource - their publishing someone else’s work for commercial gain - without permission from the copyright holder – crassly violated the “fair use” copyright provision. They exposed themselves and the University to a major statutory fine. When confronted with their handiwork, the two saw nothing wrong with what they had done – they thought themselves “self-starters” - but did agree to pay a fine to restore the journal pages. The Business Dean took little interest. Let’s hope these two were not teaching business ethics!

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Caption: University of Waterloo, Davis Library, Security Gates
The Case of the Pilfering Professor.
One of the ways to beat a library’s security system was to hold the book above your head as you passed through the security gates. The gates did not detect much of anything above shoulder height. Most thieves don’t take this conspicuous approach, preferring something less obvious. A prestigious English professor at Duke University, must have been thinking, “Who would dare question ME!” as he made his high-handed way through the security gate. Our circulation librarian observed him hoisting a leather-bound rarity on high, heading out the door. When called to explain himself, the prof claimed he was borrowing the book to go to his office for a quick browse and, of course, was going to return it within the hour! He meant no harm, etc. Our circulation librarian, outraged, did not see it that way – he had reason to suspect the prof of building a collection of stolen books. We took the matter to his department head for some form of censure. The department head did manage to extract an apology and a promise to never do it again, but that was the extent of the discipline. Academic justice. Had he been caught lifting a pair of shoes at the mall he’d be taking a ride, handcuffed, in a black and white.

*This essay follows these previous posts:
Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels.”
More Scoundrels, Knaves and Varlets.”

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of New Hampshire.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “AESOP AND THE BOW.”* 

Posted by jlubans on October 04, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Leo Cullum from the New Yorker.

“When a certain man of Athens saw Aesop playing with marbles amidst a crowd of boys, he stood there and laughed at Aesop as if Aesop were crazy. As soon as he realized what was going on, Aesop -- who was an old man far more inclined to laugh at others than to be laughed at himself -- took an unstrung bow and placed it in the middle of the road. 'Okay, you know-it-all,' he said, 'explain the meaning of what I just did.' All the people gathered round. The man wracked his brains for a long time but he could not manage to answer Aesop's question. Eventually he gave up. Having won this battle of wits, Aesop then explained, 'If you keep your bow tightly strung at all times, it will quickly break, but if you let it rest, it will be ready to use whenever you need it.' 
In the same way the mind must be given some amusement from time to time, so that you will find yourself able to think more clearly afterwards.”

Even the winged Cupid has to give his bow a rest from time to time. And so it is at work. If, without cease, we keep our nose to the grindstone, our ear to the ground, our eye on the ball, and our shoulder to the wheel, we’ll wind up as humorless and clichéd as the last four phrases! Worse, we’ll be less productive than if we take breaks. I was surprised with the varied response from staff when I organized a “Day in the Woods”. This was a playful team building experience and far away from e-mail, voice-mail, offices, desks, and computers. Some took part with enthusiasm; others were reluctant but showed up with an open mind, willing to try out something new. Others, unlike Elvis, never left the building! They saw a day off playing group games as a waste of time – or so they said. (I think the group’s being a mix of supervisors and staff deterred some. From my work with corporate groups, I have seen bosses very reluctant to mix and mingle and a few appeared fearful of not doing well, of not having THE answer to a problem solving activity.)
A few even took it upon themselves to disparage others’ going, and, if a subordinate wanted to go, they’d not grant permission.
Invariably, the results of those days away were new and strengthened relationships, new perspectives, and, oddly enough, fresh ideas on how to get work done. Many of my “direct reports” chose to take part; overall about 20% of the total staff volunteered.
I will probably lead a weeklong off-site retreat next summer in Latvia; my draft agenda already includes several of the timeless events from those Days in the Woods. And from what I know of the hard-working Latvians, like Aesop, they already know the value of play.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of North Texas

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Flip-flop or Breakthrough?

Posted by jlubans on October 01, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Mouse Pad –“Tergiversation” by Chris Pyle

“Tergiversation” was a recent Word-of-the-Day. It means a couple things: evasion of straightforward action and/or desertion of a cause or position. In any case, the word implies slippery behavior.

The word was new to me. I’ve done my share of tergiversation and I see it practiced daily by both the mighty and the humble. What caught my attention was Merriam-Webster’s enlightening example of the word’s use culled from the “Independent” (UK) newspaper:
"A man is allowed to change his mind—even in the world of politics…. All we can reasonably demand of those engaging in such tergiversations is that they have pondered deeply and, perhaps, even in a principled way about their change of position."

I think changing one's mind has gotten a bad reputation. Women are sometimes given a sexist pass. Hah!
A change of one’s mind need not be a form of pussyfooting around, of sitting-on the-fence, of shilly-shallying, of hemming and hawing; no, as the example suggests, having “pondered deeply”, a change of mind can be indeed the honorable option.

On an occasion, I find myself clinging to a decision that is no longer as substantial as I first thought; if it had “legs”, they’re getting shorter, not longer. In one instance, I persisted in my folly because I did not like the person making the counter-proposal. Kinda petty, I know. What did Alexander Pope say? Something about erring and forgiving?
Worse, I was somewhat embarrassed because while I thought my decision was OK, I really had not done my homework - yes, I have been known to shoot from the hip and to fly by the seat of my pants. I have found through trial and error that when I consider the ramifications, the implications, and the several consequences of a decision – before taking it - the better I can explain why something should be done a particular way. Interestingly, my having an in-depth understanding actually allows me then to be more open to other views. Why? Because I feel less vulnerable to looking foolish or ill prepared. And, when I have an in depth understanding of a decision, I feel better able to consider a counter proposal; I am less on the defensive. If that sounds like collaboration, you are right. When both sides are well prepared, then collaboration may well produce a third, vastly superior idea.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Southeastern Louisiana University.
Theory X says: Order a copy now and I'll be checking back with you today! Theory Y suggests: You might want to consider ordering a copy for your library. Let me know what you think.

Copyright John Lubans 2013